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201403ilrumorebianco

TRACKLISTING:
1. Tutto un sogno (parte 1) (6:15)
2. Il vestito buono (6:21)
3. Il primo attore (6:13)
4. Tutto un sogno (parte 2) (9:05)

LINEUP:
Eddy Fiorio – lead vocals, synth
Michele Zanotti – guitars, sax
Federico Lonardi – guitars
Thomas Pessina – keyboards, synth, backing vocals
Alessandro Danzi – bass guitar
Umberto Sartorii – drums

Il Rumore Bianco (White Noise) are a six-piece hailing from the historic Italian city of Verona, where they were born from the ashes of another project called Side C (who released two EPs between 2009 and 2011 before disbanding). In the summer of 2012, former Side C members Michele Zanotti, Thomas Pessina and Alessandro Danzi got together with the intention of forming a new band with a more eclectic, “progressive” direction, and recruited vocalist Eddy Fiorio, guitarist Federico Lonardi and drummer Umberto Sartorii  – all dedicated musicians with extensive experience in spite of their young age. The band’s recording debut, a 4-track EP by the title of Mediocrazia, was released at the end of November 2013.

Though Il Rumore Bianco claim to have been inspired, first and foremost, by progressive rock’s classic era, Mediocrazia eschews the overtly retro sound of many recent releases. The typically grandiose, symphonic approach of many Italian prog bands is only marginally touched upon, leaving the stage to a wide range of sources of inspiration that, in some case, are tangential to prog – such as electronics and jazz, as well as Italian-style alternative rock. The different  backgrounds of the band members are brought together to create a tight yet varied musical texture that supports thought-provoking lyrics dealing with the overwhelming presence of the media in modern society, and the resulting pervasive mediocrity that stifles the aspirations of genuinely creative people.

The EP is bookended by a two-part suite titled  “Tutto un sogno”. The energetic, organ-drenched first part often  hints at Deep Purple, though Eddy Fiorio’s voice – following the line of the music like an additional instrument instead of dominating it (as it often happens in Italian prog) – evokes a modern-day Demetrio Stratos; the song culminates in an exhilarating guitar solo backed by deep, rumbling organ. On the other hand, “Il vestito buono” combines an elusive vintage flavour  with a more modern allure; organ, mellotron and ambient-tinged synth washes provide a lush tapestry for Fiorio’s expressive vocals and Lonardi’s multifaceted guitar, and an engagingly warm sense of melody balances the surges of intensity.

The influence of Area looms large over the sleek jazz-rock romp of “Il primo attore”, where Fiorio deploys all the power and versatility of his impressive pipes, and Alessandro Danzi’s bass throws a generous pinch of funky spice in the heady stew of elegantly sharp guitar, blaring sax and jaunty electric piano. The 9-minute second part of “Tutto un sogno” wraps up the album in style, though avoiding the excesses of the stereotypical “epic” –  its atmospheric, muted intro gradually building up to a veritable explosion of sound  in which all the instruments seem to strive for primacy, then slowly winding down to a spacey, slo-mo finale.

The use of the inherently musical Italian language and the innate flair for a good melody possessed by seemingly all Italian musicians imbues Mediocrazia with that sense of Mediterranean warmth that surfaces in the work of the otherwise edgy Area, as well as later outfits such as Deus ex Machina, D.F.A. (incidentally, also from Verona) or Accordo dei Contrari. All in all, in spite of its short running time, this is a surprisingly mature debut – with very few, if any, rough edges, and a very promising display of songwriting skills. Those who prefer their prog on the modern side, but are not averse to the presence of distinguishing elements of the classic Seventies style, will not fail to be intrigued by Mediocrazia – which is highly recommended to fans of the thriving, variegated Italian prog scene.

Links:
http://www.ilrumorebianco.com

https://www.facebook.com/ilrumorebianco

http://ilrumorebianco.bandcamp.com/album/mediocrazia

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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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As the title of this post suggests, 2013 was another bumper year for progressive music – perhaps without as many peaks of excellence as the two previous years, but still offering a wide range of high-quality releases to the discerning listener. On the other hand, it was also a year in which the need for some form of quality control emerged quite sharply. The sheer number of releases that might be gathered under the “prog” umbrella made listening to everything a practically impossible feat – unless one wanted to risk some serious burnout. As modern technology has afforded the tools to release their own music to almost anyone, it has also fostered a sense of entitlement in some artists as regards positive feedback, even when their product is clearly not up to scratch. 2013 also evidenced the growing divide within the elusive “prog community”, with the lingering worship of anything Seventies-related in often sharp contrast with the genuine progressive spirit of many artists who delve deep into musical modes of expression of a different nature from those that inspired the golden age of the genre.

While, on a global level, 2013 was fraught with as many difficulties as 2012, personally speaking (with the exception of the last two or three months) the year as a whole was definitely more favourable – which should have encouraged me to write much more than I actually did. Unfortunately, a severe form of burnout forced me into semi-retirement in the first few months of the year, occasionally leading me to believe that I would never write a review ever again. Because of that, I reviewed only a small percentage of the albums released during the past 12 months; however, thanks to invaluable resources such as Progstreaming, Progify and Bandcamp, I was able to listen to a great deal of new music, and form an opinion on many of the year’s highlights.

I apologize beforehand to my readers if there will be some glaring omissions in this essay. As usual, my personal choices will probably diverge from the “mainstream” of the prog audience, though I am sure they will resonate with others. This year I have chosen to use a slightly different format than in the previous two years, giving more or less the same relevance to all the albums mentioned in the following paragraphs. Those who enjoy reading “top 10/50/100” lists will be better served by other websites or magazines: my intent here is to provide an overview of what I found to be worthy of note in the past 12 months, rather than rank my choices in order of preference.

Interestingly, two of my top 2013 albums (both released at the end of January) came from the UK – a country that, in spite of its glorious past, nowadays rarely produces music that sets my world on fire. Although the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Guapo’s History of the Visitation and the lyricism and subtle complexity of Thieves’ Kitchen’s One for Sorrow, Two for Joy may sound wildly different, they both represent a side of the British progressive rock scene where the production of challenging music is still viewed as viable, and image-related concerns are a very low priority.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK was prodigal with interesting releases for every prog taste. Among the more left-field offerings coming from the other side of the pond, I will mention Sanguine Hum’s multilayered sophomore effort, The Weight of the World – one of those rare albums that are impossible to label; Godsticks’ intricate, hard-hitting The Envisage Conundrum; the unique “classical crossover” of Karda Estra’s Mondo Profondo; The Fierce and the Dead’s fast and furious Spooky Action (think King Crimson meets punk rock); Tim Bowness’ Henry Fool with Men Singing, their second album after a 12-year hiatus; and Brighton-based outfit Baron (who share members with Diagonal and Autumn Chorus) with their haunting Columns. A mention is also amply deserved by volcanic multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson’s projects Jumble Hole Clough and Churn Milk Joan – whose numerous albums are all available on Bandcamp. The prize for the most authentically progressive UK release of the year, however, should probably be awarded to Chrome Black Gold by “experimental chamber rock orchestra” Chrome Hoof, who are part of the Cuneiform Records roster and share members with their label mates Guapo.

The US scene inaugurated the year with the late January release of Herd of Instinct’s second album, Conjure, a completely instrumental effort that saw the basic trio augmented by Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards fleshing out the band’s haunting, cinematic sound. Ellett’s main gig (who will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2014) also made their studio comeback with The Trip, featuring a single 47-minute track combining ambient, electronics-laden atmospheres (as per self-explanatory title) with a full-tilt psychedelic rock jam. Later in the year, Little Atlas’ solid Automatic Day and Sonus Umbra’s brooding Winter Soulstice brought back two bands that had long been out of the limelight. From the US also came a few gems that, unfortunately, have almost flown under the radar of the prog fandom, such as The Knells’ eponymous debut with its heady blend of post-rock, classical music and polyphony; Jack O’The Clock’s intriguing American folk/RIO crossover All My Friends; Birds and Buildings’ über-eclectic Multipurpose Trap; The Red Masque’s intensely Gothic Mythalogue; and the ambitious modern prog epic of And The Traveler’s The Road, The Reason.

The fall season brought some more left-field fireworks from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions and Cuneiform Records. miRthkon’s Snack(s) and ZeviousPassing Through the Wall, both outstanding examples of high-energy modern progressive rock by two veritable forces of nature in a live setting, were preceded by Miriodor’s long-awaited eighth studio album, Cobra Fakir, premiered at ProgDay in an utterly flawless set. More RIO/Avant goodness came from Europe with Humble Grumble’s delightfully weird Guzzle It Up, Rhùn’s Zeuhl workout Ïh, October Equus’s darkly beautiful Permafrost, and Spaltklang’s unpredictable In Between. From Sweden came Necromonkey’s self-titled debut, an idiosyncratic but fascinating effort born of the collaboration between drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson and Gösta Berlings Saga keyboardist David Lundberg.

Among the myriad of prog-metal releases of the year, another UK band, Haken, stood head and shoulders above the competition: their third album The Mountain transcended the limitations of the subgenre, and drew positive feedback even from people who would ordinarily shun anything bearing a prog-metal tag. Much of the same considerations might apply to Kayo Dot’s highly anticipated Hubardo, though the latter album is definitely much less accessible and unlikely to appeal to more traditional-minded listeners. Fans of old-fashioned rock operas found a lot to appreciate in Circle of Illusion’s debut, Jeremias: Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms, a monumentally ambitious, yet surprisingly listenable album in the tradition of Ayreon’s sprawling epics, rated by many much more highly than the latter’s rather lacklustre The Theory of Everything.

Some of the year’s most intriguing releases came from countries that are rarely featured on the prog map. One of my personal top 10 albums, Not That City by Belarus’ Five-Storey Ensemble (one of two bands born from the split of Rational Diet) is a sublime slice of chamber-prog that shares more with classical music than with rock. Five-Storey Ensemble’s Vitaly Appow also appears on the deeply erudite, eclectic pastiche of fellow Belarusians (and AltrOck Productions label mates) The Worm OuroborosOf Things That Never Were. The exhilarating jazz-rock-meets-Eastern-European-folk brew provided by Norwegian quintet Farmers’ Market’s fifth studio album, Slav to the Rhythm, was another of the year’s highlights, guaranteed to please fans of eclectic progressive music. From an even more exotic locale, Uzbekistan’s own Fromuz regaled their many fans with the dramatic Sodom and Gomorrah, a recording dating back from 2008 and featuring the band’s original lineup.

In the jazz-rock realm, releases ran the gamut from modern, high-adrenalin efforts such as The AristocratsCulture Clash, Volto!’s Incitare by (featuring Tool’s drummer Danny Carey), and keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni’s debut Keystone (produced by Derek Sherinian) to the multifaceted approach of French outfit La Théorie des Cordes’ ambitious, all-instrumental double CD Singes Eléctriques, the sprawling, ambient-tinged improv of Shrunken Head Shop’s Live in Germany, and the hauntingly emotional beauty of Blue Cranes’ Swim. Trance Lucid’s elegantly eclectic Palace of Ether and the intricate acoustic webs of Might Could’s Relics from the Wasteland can also be warmly recommended to fans of guitar-driven, jazz-inflected instrumental music.

Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records, however, proved throughout the year as the most reliable single provider of high-quality music effortlessly straddling the rock and the jazz universe, with the triumphant comeback of Soft Machine Legacy and their superb Burden of Proof, The Wrong Object’s stunning slice of modern Canterbury, After the Exhibition, and Marbin’s sophisticated (if occasionally a a bit too “easy”) Last Chapter of Dreaming. Pavkovic’s frequent forays into the booming Indonesian scene brought masterpieces such as simakDialog’s fascinating, East-meets-West The 6th Story, and I Know You Well Miss Clara’s stylish Chapter One – as well as Dewa Budjana’s ebullient six-string exertions in Joged Kahyangan. Dialeto’s contemporary take on the power trio, The Last Tribe, and Dusan Jevtovic’s high-octane Am I Walking Wrong? also featured some noteworthy examples of modern guitar playing with plenty of energy and emotion.

Song-based yet challenging progressive rock was well represented in 2013 by the likes of Half Past Four’s second album, the amazingly accomplished Good Things, propelled by lead vocalist Kyree Vibrant’s career-defining performance; fellow Canadians The Rebel Wheel’s spiky, digital-only concept album Whore’s Breakfast;  Simon McKechnie’s sophisticated, literate debut Clocks and Dark Clouds; and newcomers Fractal Mirror with their moody, New Wave-influenced Strange Attractors. New Jersey’s 3RDegree also released a remastered, digital-only version of their second album, Human Interest Story (originally released in 1996). Iranian band Mavara’s first international release, Season of Salvation, also deserves a mention on account of the band’s struggles to carve out a new life in the US, away from the many troubles of their home country.

Even more so than in the past few years, many of 2013’s gems hailed from my home country of Italy, bearing witness to the endless stream of creativity of a scene that no economic downturn can dampen. One of the most impressive debut albums of the past few years came from a young Rome-based band by the name of Ingranaggi della Valle, whose barnstorming In Hoc Signo told the story of the Crusades through plenty of exciting modern jazz-rock chops, without a hint of the cheesiness usually associated with such ventures. Another stunning debut, the wonderfully quirky Limiti all’eguaglianza della parte con il tutto by Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res, delighted fans of the Canterbury scene; while Not A Good Sign’s eponymous debut blended the angular, King Crimson-inspired melancholia of Änglagård and Anekdoten with that uniquely Italian melodic flair. After their successful NEARfest appearance in 2012, Il Tempio delle Clessidre made their comeback with  AlieNatura, an outstanding example of modern symphonic prog recorded with new vocalist Francesco Ciapica; while fellow Genoese quintet La Coscienza di Zeno made many a Top 10 list with their supremely accomplished sophomore effort, Sensitività. Another highly-rated Genoese outfit, La Maschera di Cera, paid homage to one of the landmark albums of vintage RPI – Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona – by releasing a sequel, titled Le Porte del Domani (The Gates of Tomorrow in its English version). Aldo Tagliapietra’s L’angelo rinchiuso saw the legendary former Le Orme bassist and frontman revert to a more classic prog vein, while iconic one-shot band Museo Rosenbach followed the example of other historic RPI bands and got back together to release Barbarica. Even PFM treated their many fans to a new double album, though scarce on truly new material: as the title implies, PFM in Classic: Da Mozart a Celebration contains versions of iconic classical pieces performed by the band with a full orchestra, as well as five of their best-known songs. Among the newcomers, Camelias Garden’s elegant You Have a Chance presents a streamlined take on melodic symphonic prog, while Unreal City’s La crudeltà di Aprile blends Gothic suggestions with the classic RPI sound; on the other hand, Oxhuitza’s self-titled debut and Pandora’s Alibi Filosofico tap into the progressive metal vein without turning their backs to their Italian heritage. Il Rumore Bianco’s Area-influenced debut EP Mediocrazia brought another promising young band to the attention of prog fans.

However, some of the most impressive Italian releases of the year can be found on the avant-garde fringes of the prog spectrum. Besides Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days (featuring contributions by Thinking Plague’s Elaine DiFalco, as well as most of his Yugen bandmates), OTEME’s superb Il giardino disincantato – a unique blend of high-class singer-songwriter music and Avant-Prog complexity – and the sophisticated, atmospheric jazz-rock of Pensiero Nomade’s Imperfette Solitudini deserve to be included in the top albums of the year. To be filed under “difficult but ultimately rewarding” is Claudio Milano’s international project InSonar with the double CD L’enfant et le Ménure, while Nichelodeon’s ambitious Bath Salts (another double CD) will appeal to those who enjoy vocal experimentation in the tradition of Demetrio Stratos.

My readers will have noticed a distinct lack of high-profile releases in the previous paragraphs.n Not surprisingly for those who know me, some of the year’s top-rated albums (such as The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, The Flower KingsDesolation Rose and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) are missing from this list because I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to them. Others have instead been heard, but have not left a positive enough impression to be mentioned here, and I would rather focus on the positives than on what did not click with me. In any case, most of those albums have received their share of rave reviews on many other blogs, websites and print magazines. I will make, however, one exception for Steven Wilson’s much-praised The Raven Who Refused to Sing, as I had the privilege of seeing it performed in its entirety on the stage of the Howard Theatre in Washington DC at the end of April. Though the concert was excellent, and the stellar level of Wilson’s backing band undoubtedly did justice to the material, I am still not completely sold about the album being the undisputed masterpiece many have waxed lyrical about.

In addition to successful editions of both ROSfest and ProgDay (which will be celebrating its 20th  anniversary in 2014), 2013 saw the birth of two new US festivals: Seaprog (held in Seattle on the last weekend of June) and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (held in Dunellen, New Jersey, on October 12-13). As luckily both events enjoyed a good turnout, 2014 editions are already being planned. There were also quite a few memorable concerts held throughout the year, though we did not attend as many as we would have wished. In spite of the often painfully low turnout (unless some big name of the Seventies is involved), it is heartwarming to see that bands still make an effort to bring their music to the stage, where it truly belongs.

On a more somber note, the year 2013 brought its share of heartache to the progressive rock community. Alongside the passing of many influential artists (such as Peter Banks, Kevin Ayers and Allen Lanier), in December I found myself mourning the loss of John Orsi and Dave Kulju, two fine US musicians whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing in the past few years. Other members of the community were also affected by grievous personal losses. Once again, even in such difficult moments, music offers comfort to those who remain, and keeps the memory of the departed alive.

In my own little corner of the world, music has been essential in giving me a sense of belonging in a country where I will probably never feel completely at home. Even if my enjoyment of music does have its ups and downs, and sometimes it is inevitable to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of new stuff to check out, I cannot help looking forward to the new musical adventures that 2014 will bring.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Terra Sancta (12:25)
2. Move Over I’m Driving (7:58)
3. Pasta Fazeuhl (14:02)
4-6. Under Wuhu Son:
In the Bright Light (8:22)
Left for Dead (5:36)
Brace Against the Fall (6:15)
7. From the Fence (12:05)
8. Belgian Boogie Board (10:31)

LINEUP:
Bill Ayasse – violin, viola, mandolin, hand percussion, vocals
Frank Camiola – electric guitar, banjo, string bass
James Guarnieri – drums, glockenspiel, orchestral percussion
John Lieto – trombone and bass trombone
Nick Lieto – lead vocals, piano, keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn
Andrew Sussman – electric bass, cello, acoustic guitar

With:
Sharon Ayasse – flute (3, 4, 5, 6, 8)
Dennis Lippe – electric guitar (1, 7)
Dee Harris – Indian slide guitar, tambora (1)
Nitim Mohan-  tabla (1)
Vessela Stoyanova – marimba (1, 4, 5, 6)
Michael Kollmer – marimba, xylophone (3, 8)
Jon Preddice – cello (3, 8)
Steven Sussman – clarinet, bass clarinet (4, 5, 6, 8)
Steve Katsikas – keyboards (4)
Mike Kauffman – alto and tenor saxophones (8)

Though my reviewing efforts usually focus on recent releases, every now and then it feels good do break my own rules. This review should have been published three years ago on a different website, but, unfortunately, circumstances dictated otherwise. Almost unexpectedly, the opportunity for writing this long-overdue piece came barely over a month ago, when I had the privilege of seeing Frogg Café perform at the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend – a triumphant return to the stage after years of absence, and hopefully not a one-off.

Born towards the end of the 20th century in the New York metropolitan area as a Frank Zappa tribute band named Lumpy Gravy, Frogg Café have been through their share of lineup changes. However, their fifth studio album, Bateless Edge  – released in the early summer of 2010 – saw the return of their original lineup (including guitarist Frank Camiola),  augmented by trombonist John Lieto, who had appeared on their double live CD The Safenzee Diaries (2007). Although highly anticipated albums may often disappoint expectations, this is definitely not the case of Bateless Edge – an effort as monumental in scope as the odd-looking contraptions gracing its stylishly grungy cover in  muted shades of grey.

With the band’s six-piece configuration expanded by a host of guest musicians (including Steve Katsikas of 10T Records label mates Little Atlas) contributing a wide range of additional instruments, it is no wonder that Bateless Edge sounds big – symphonic in the true sense of the word. Indeed, in spite of the generic jazz-rock tag often attached to them, Frogg Café might be effectively described as the link between brass rock in the style of early Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears and Colosseum and progressive rock proper, with frequent forays into more experimental territory and a healthy balance between loose-textured jams and tighter, more disciplined compositions.

With a running time between 6 and over 20 minutes, the six tracks on Bateless Edge well represent their authors’ different personalities. Frank Camiola’s two ambitious contributions reflect his fascination with the more left-field fringes of the progressive spectrum (well displayed in his side project Cardboard Amanda’s eponymous 2006 album). The amusingly-titled “Pasta Fazeuhl” (inspired by Magma’s appearance at NEARfest 2003)  is a veritable rollercoaster ride in which angular Frippian guitar forms collide with brooding, cello-driven passages reminiscent of Univers Zéro and hauntingly military marches in true Magma style, with brief yet intriguing classical touches, freely blaring horns and wild bursts of guitar. Album closer “Belgian Boogie Board” was originally written in minimalistic form for the Cardboard Amanda album, but was then expanded and rearranged as a 28-page score involving almost as many instruments – a true tour-de-force that might easily be described as RIO meets brass rock, a joyful instance of controlled chaos.

Nick Lieto’s contributions, in stark contrast with Camiola’s, are definitely the most accessible on the album, emphasizing melody and a bright, upbeat mood. In the instrumental “Move Over I’m Driving”, Bill Ayasse’s sprightly violin and mandolin introduce folksy elements in its choppy, dance-like pace, to which the horns add a quasi-orchestral quality, and all the instruments take turns in a call-and-response pattern. On the other hand, “From the Fence”, for all its 12-minute running time, is the closest the album gets to a conventional song with a lovely, easy flow enhanced by Lieto’s expressive vocals and memorable, almost Beatlesian chorus; Ayasse’s stunning violin turn lends an appealing Old-World feel to the piece.

Andrew Sussman’s own two pieces bring those two strains together, with plenty of variety and a hint of an edge to temper the melodic quotient. “Terra Sancta”, dedicated to the children who lost parents in the 9/11 bombings, opens the album in authoritative yet catchy fashion (at odds with the stark, poignant lyrics), driven by buoyant horns and spiced by Eastern instruments such as the tabla and Indian slide guitar. A more somber, slightly dissonant section in the middle breaks this deceptively upbeat feel, with the guitar launching into a very expressive solo before the reprise of the main theme. The second of Sussman’s compositions, “Under Wuhu Son”,  is a three-part suite with another deeply emotional story behind it (this time a very personal one, as it refers to the musician and his family’s struggle to adopt a little Chinese girl), and acts as the album’s centerpiece also in a literal sense. The wistful, elegiac tone of “In the Bright Light”, intensified by lyrical violin, flute and marimba, segues into the surprisingly intense, metal-tinged riffing and forceful horns of the instrumental “Left for Dead”; then the intensity eases with the jaunty, melodic “Brace Against the Fall”, featuring a lovely guitar solo that shows Camiola’s more sensitive side.

Although my regular readers know that I am generally very critical of albums that I perceive to be excessively long, I will make an exception for Bateless Edge – the only album I have heard in the past few years whose almost 80-minute running time hardly has any negative impact on its quality. While there might be a bit of self-indulgence here and there, the overall level of the music is so high that those occasional lapses can easily be overlooked. With its tight musicianship and eclectic compositional approach, Bateless Edge celebrates the pleasure of music-making by offering the sonic equivalent of a lavish banquet. Though most dedicated prog fans will already have heard the album by now, those who have missed it would do well to give it a listen – or possibly more than one, as this is easily one of the best releases of the past few years.

Links:
http://www.froggcafe.com/

http://10trecords.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Open the Door, See the Ground (10:17)
2. Conversation (8:02)
3. Pop Sick Love Carousel (6:16)
4. Reverie #2 (14:51)
5. Love Letter from Canada (4:26)
6. Dangerous Kitchen (9:04)
7. A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love (10:48)

LINEUP:
Reza Ryan – guitar
Adi Wijaya – keyboards
Enriko Gultom – bass
Alfiah Akbar – drums

With:
Nicholas Combe – sax (6, 7)

With their rather intriguing handle (allegedly referring to a former girlfriend of guitarist Reza Ryan’s), accompanied by equally intriguing cover artwork, I Know You Well Miss Clara are the latest gem unearthed by Moonjune Records’ Leonardo Pavkovic in the thriving Indonesian music scene. The quartet join fellow countrymen simakDialog, Tohpati and Ligro on the New York label’s ever-growing roster of progressive artists with their debut album, aptly titled Chapter One. Formed in 2010 in the erstwhile Indonesian capital of Yogyakarta (which is also a renowned centre for Javanese classical art and culture) when its members were studying at the Indonesia Institute for the Arts, the band caught Pavkovic’s attention during one of his frequent trips to South-East Asia in search of new talent.

As pointed out in the liner notes (penned by esteemed music writer and King Crimson biographer Sid Smith), Chapter One was recorded in 18 hours, all of the tracks being first or second takes – a testimony to the band’s energy and enthusiasm for their craft. The album itself offers a refreshing take on the classic jazz-rock template so well interpreted in the Seventies by the likes of Return to Forever, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra – the latter being by far the biggest influence on the band’s sound. Canterbury outfits such as Hatfield and the North and National Health are also a clear source of inspiration for I Know You Well Miss Clara, as indicated by a playful exuberance that speaks volumes about the  members’ enjoyment of music-making, coupled (though never in conflict) with a very high level of technical proficiency.

If compared with simakDialog (whose latest album, The 6th Story, was released at the same time as Chapter One) I Know You Well Miss Clara are more firmly rooted in the Western jazz-rock tradition, with a lone drummer (the excellent Alfiah Akbar) employing a standard kit rather than a trio of kendang percussionists. Although their sound also places a stronger emphasis on guitar (which is not surprising, seen as Reza Ryan is the main composer), none of the four band members prevails on the other or indulges in showing off his skills. Opening track “Open the Door, See the Ground” starts out sedately, then veers into a more experimental mood, with dramatic drums and whooshing, spacey synth complementing Ryan’s sizzling yet tasteful solo. The interplay between the guitar and Adi Wijaya’s piano (both electric and acoustic) is spotlighted in the appropriately-titled “Conversation”, a more laid-back piece with an entrancing ebb-and-flow movement and plenty of melody. This elegant yet accessible approach, injected with sudden surges of energy driven by organ and guitar, is also pursued in the Canterbury-flavoured“Pop Sick Love Carousel”; while the album’s centerpiece, the almost 15-minute “Reverie #2”, starts out at a slow-burning pace, then gradually gains momentum – both piano and guitar emoting in almost improvisational fashion, bolstered by Enriko Gultom’s nimble bass lines – slowing down again towards the end.

The shortest track on the album at around 4 minutes, “Love Letter From Canada” is also the most unusual: a haunting, emotional ambient study of surging keyboard washes, sparse guitar  and cascading cymbals, it hints at interesting future developments in the band’s sound. Its mood is briefly reprised at the beginning of “Dangerous Kitchen”, which then morphs into a leisurely jazzy piece where guest Nicholas Combe’s sax and guitar work almost in unison, leaving some room for a bit of improvisation before the end. A lovely tribute to Ryan’s idol John McLaughlin – by the amusingly tongue-in-cheek title of “A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love” – closes the album in style, referencing the iconic “Dance of Maya” (from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame) in a buoyant, dance-like ride interspersed by pensive, sax-led passages before its exhilarating, almost cinematic finale.

Clocking in at around 63 minutes, Chapter One is never at risk of overstaying its welcome in spite of the length of the majority of its tracks. Successfully blending serious chops with engaging spontaneity and enthusiasm, I Know You Well Miss Clara’s debut is one of the best instrumental albums released in 2013 so far, and will delight devotees of classic jazz-rock/fusion – especially those who prize emotion over an excess of technical fireworks. Hopefully the band will follow in simakDialog’s footsteps and visit the US as soon as possible.

Links:
http://iknowyouwellmissclara.weebly.com/index.html

http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/chapter-one

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/057_I-KNOW-YOU-WELL-MISS-CLARA_Chapter-One_MJR057/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Stepping In (10:01)
2. Lain Parantina (9:06)
3. Harmologic (3:52)
4. What I Would Say (6:17)
5. For Once and Never (6:29)
6. Common League (3:53)
7. As Far As It Can Be (Jaco) (8:01)
8. 5, 6 (4:38)
9. Ari (6:52)

LINEUP:
Riza Arshad – Fender Rhodes electric piano, acoustic piano, synth, soundscapes
Tohpati – guitar
Adhitya Pratama - bass
Endang Ramdan – Sundanese kendang percussion (left)
Erlan Suwardana – Sundanese kendang percussion (right)
Cucu Kurnia – assorted metal percussion

Undoubtedly the best-known modern Indonesian outfit in a progressive rock/jazz context, simakDialog have attracted a cult following in the West since the release of their 2007 live album Patahan (their first for Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records), followed in 2009  by Demi Masa. Formed in 1993 in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta by jazz-trained keyboardist Riza Arshad and guitarist extraordinaire Tohpati Ario Hutomo, the band released three albums – Lukisan, Baur and Trance/Mission – between 1995 and 2002 before Pavkovic took them under his wing and gave them international recognition. After a series of mishaps (including the cancellation of NEARfest 2011, where they were scheduled to appear), their long-awaited US tour – which coincided with the release of their fifth studio album, The 6th Story – finally materialized in the late summer of 2013, kicking off with a headlining performance at ProgDay that was unfortunately interrupted by heavy rain, and wrapped up by a very well-attended show at the Orion Studios, introduced by French avant-garde trio Jean-Louis.

As used and abused as the “East meets West” definition can be, there is no better way to describe simakDialog’s music to the uninitiated. Alongside electric guitar, bass and that iconic cornerstone of jazz-rock, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the six-piece configuration of the band features a trio of percussionists in the style of the traditional gamelan ensembles – Erdang Ramdan and Erlan Suwardana playing the Sundanese two-headed kendang drums, and Cucu Kurnia (the band’s most recent addition) handling metal percussion. The result is a uniquely warm sound with a remarkably natural flow, capable of flashes of angularity and even brief forays into noise, yet never overwrought. In addition, though each of simakDialog’s members is a virtuoso of his own instrument, the band emphasize ensemble playing at its finest rather than technical flash, with individual skills put at the service of the composition rather than the other way round.

SimakDialog’s music, on the other hand, may not prove to be the easiest proposition for those who are used to the in-your-face antics of many traditional prog bands. Subtlety is the operative word on The 6th Story, and that in itself requires a lot of patience on the part of the listener. Their leisurely, unhurried approach to live performance has also more in common with Eastern than Western tradition, focusing on the sheer joy of playing and the creation of subtle moods rather than the head-on adrenaline rush of the standard rock concert.

Clocking in at a handful of seconds under an hour, The 6th Story (the band’s first entirely instrumental album in over 10 years) opens with “Stepping In”, the album’s longest track, which aptly illustrates simakDialog’s  modus operandi. While the sinuous interplay of Tohpati’s guitar and Riza Arshad’s scintillating Fender Rhodes immediately leaps out from the speakers, it is the joyful mayhem of the three percussionists that impresses in the long run, bolstered by Adithya Pratama’s impeccable bass emerging every now and then in the foreground. The track unfolds with supreme elegance, spiced up by sound effects that turn slightly chaotic towards the end. The 9-minute “Lain Parantina” also conveys a sunny, bright feel with its oddly catchy main theme and skillfully handled tempo changes, gaining momentum then slowing down to an almost sparse texture,  held together by the steady stream of percussion. Tohpati’s guitar is spotlighted in the much shorter “Harmologic”, while the piano takes an almost supporting role, working almost as an additional percussion instrument. In the second shortest track on the album, “Common League”, soundscapes add an intriguing note to the lively yet fluid sparring of piano and guitar.

SimakDialog’s more energetic side surfaces in “5,6”, where Tohpati displays his rock credentials (amply demonstrated in his power trio Tohpati Bertiga’s 2012 debut, Riot) with a distorted guitar solo; while the upbeat “For Once and Never” revolves around the expressive, almost conversational interplay of the two main instruments, supported by Pratama’s versatile bass. The discreet, laid-back “What Should I Say” pleases the ear with its smooth sounds, and “As Far As It Can Be (Jaco)” – a tribute to the ground-breaking bassist written by Arshad together with fellow Indonesian musician Robert M.K. – takes on a suitably elegiac tone, full of lovely, stately melody. “Ari” then closes the album by giving synth a leading role alongside the piano, with the ever-reliable percussion background seconding the music’s ebb and flow.

For the audiophile, headphones will be a must in order to savour The 6th Story in full, as letting it run in the background will definitely not do any favours to the music’s understated elegance.  Although the album may resonate more with jazz fans than the average prog audience, it is highly recommended to all open-minded listeners, especially those who enjoy the influence of different ethnic traditions on established Western modes of expression. All in all, The 6th Story is an extremely classy  effort (and one of the standout releases of 2013) from a group of very nice, unassuming and talented musicians, whom I hope to see again in the US very soon.

Links:
http://simakdialog.com

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/artists_mjr/simakDialog/

https://myspace.com/simakdialog/music/songs

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trancelucid5

TRACKLISTING:
1. TM (3:33)
2. Spyglass (4:47)
3. Illumination (4:03)
4. Pocket (3:31)
5. The Crossing (3:29)

Palace of Ether:
6. Many Rooms (2:47)
7. Saints in Stone (3:25)
8. Dream of Antiquity (4:34)
9. Painted Dancer (1:51)
10. Actors in Armor (2:56)
11. Before the Idiots (3:51)
12. Vox of Silence (2:02)
13. Horsemen at the Gate (2:13)
14. Nightlit Moons (2:34)
15. Remembrance (5:40)

LINEUP:
Dave Halverson – guitar, synthesizer, bass
Terry Lee – drums, percussion
Richard Bugbee – keyboards

With:
Damien Gonzalez – bass (1)

Although they have been around for about 20 years, Oakland-based outfit Trance Lucid have managed to keep under the radar of the majority of progressive rock fans. Formed in 1993 by guitarist Dave Halverson and drummer Terry Lee, the band released their debut album, Arise, in 1996, followed by Vigil (2000) and The Colors of Darkness (2005). Very active on the live front in the Bay Area, at the end of 2007 Trance Lucid also released a live album, Unrevisited Live, which included 11 previously unreleased compositions performed at five different shows. After a few years’ hiatus, the band regrouped with the addition of keyboardist Richard Bugbee and Halverson himself replacing Bill Noertker on bass duties, and finally released their fifth album, Palace of Ether, in the summer of 2013. Halverson is also an established solo artist, with four albums to his name released between 2003 and 2009.

Stylishly packaged, with an appealing, sepia-toned vintage photo reproduced on the cover, Palace of Ether is a 51-minute slice of instrumental, guitar-based music that reflects the breadth of Halverson’s musical interests and sources of inspiration. While it can be loosely labeled as jazz-rock, Trance Lucid’s sound features elements of other genres, such as blues, funk, world music and even post-rock. Though Halverson’s guitar might be expected to dominate the proceedings, the other instruments are given ample space, and prove equally essential to the musical development of the compositions. The music featured on Palace of Ether runs the gamut from almost straightforward bluesy rock to haunting Oriental influences, showing Halverson’s versatility as a composer. His fluid, consistently melodic style steers clear of self-indulgence, and meshes perfectly with his bandmates’ accomplished input.

Palace of Ether is clearly divided in two halves, the first comprising five stand-alone tracks, the second a 32-minute, 10-part suite that, according to the band’s website, originated 15 years ago. With the exception of the slightly longer closing number “Remembrance” none of the tracks exceed 5 minutes; the album, however, comes across as remarkably tight. In fact, while the tracks may sound somewhat alike on the first couple of listens, the use of apparently similar themes contributes to the cohesive feel of the album.

Opener “TM” gives a taste of Halverson’s compositional approach with a raw-sounding riff in pure Hawkwind style, gradually morphing into a melodic yet somewhat rarefied variation on a single theme. His mastery of quiet-loud dynamics also comes out in the funky “Spyglass” and the brisk, electric “Pocket”, in which Richard Bugbee’s keyboard textures intensify the sense of mounting tension; while “Illumination” and “The Crossing” showcase Trance Lucid’s mellower side –  the latter highlighting the jazzy component of the band’s sound, Halverson’s guitar nicely underpinned by piano ripples, then gradually building up to an exhilarating finale.

As good as these tracks are, the Palace of Ether suite is the true focus of interest of the album, especially for progressive rock fans – and not merely on account of its running time. The twangy, sitar-like sound of the guitar on “Many Rooms” weaves a mystical, Eastern-tinged atmosphere, aptly conveying the “ethereal” nature of the title with the aid of surging mellotron washes – a subdued, entrancing mood that returns in “Saints in Stone”, and even more so in the lovely “Dream of Antiquity”, whose spacious yet carefully structured instrumental texture emphasizes Bugbee’s skillfully layered keyboards. The intricate guitar arpeggios in “Painted Dancer” boldly blend vintage psychedelic rock and hints of bluegrass, while “Vox of Silence” and “Horsemen at the Gate” veer towards an ambient-like direction. On the other hand, “Actors in Armor” “Before the Idiots” and “Remembrance” reprise the more energetic, blues- and jazz-inflected tone of the first half of the album, occasionally reminiscent of the work of Jeff Beck and Allan Holdsworth.

Though Trance Lucid may not be exactly a household name to most of the readers of this blog, Dave Halverson and his bandmates deserve to be more widely known on account of the quality of the music showcased on Palace of Ether. Indeed, both fans and practitioners of the six strings find a lot to appreciate in this eminently listenable album – with enough original ideas not to sound like a rehash of the work of other, better-known names, and avoiding the descent into self-indulgence that has been the undoing of many a would-be ”guitar hero”. Especially recommended to fans of Moonjune Records’ classy output, and instrumental rock in general, the album may need a few spins to click, but is definitely worth the effort.

Links:
http://www.trancelucid.com/home.html

http://www.davehalverson.com/

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cover_2653162812013_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. Sopla viento del Este (4:36)
2. Bounkam Rêverie (4:08)
3. Leilya (4:00)
4. Una para Lars (3:57)

Suite Sendas de Ofir:
5. En Ruta (1:39)
6. White Bird (6:21)
7.  Sendas de Ofir (4:44)
8. Oricalco (2:32)
9. Oricalco Coda (2:28)

10. Aurelia quiere saber (2:23)
11. Sunda Stream (2:42)
12. Aguas del Bagradas (4:18)

LINEUP:
Ángel Ontalva –  guitar, flute
Víctor Rodríguez – keyboards, melodica (10)
Amanda Pazos Cosse – bass
Fran Mangas – saxophones
Toni Mangas – drums
Pablo Ortega – cello (4)
Salib – vocals (3)

Spanish guitarist and graphic artist Ángel Ontalva is the mind behind RIO/Avant band October Equus and a slew of other eclectic projects. He is also the founder of the independent label OctoberXart Records, on which his main band’s latest album, Permafrost, was released in the late spring of 2013. A few months before Permafrost, Ontalva released his first solo album, Mundo Flotante, which includes material originated around 2007, and recorded between 2009 and 2012. Two other members of October Equus – bassist Amanda Pazos Cosse, who is also the artist’s wife, and keyboardist Victor Rodriguez – appear on the album,  as well as other musicians who had already previously collaborated with Ontalva.

Those who approach this album expecting something along the lines of October Equus’ austerely refined take on Avant-Prog may be disappointed, because Mundo Flotante is quite a different animal. Though featuring the same accomplished musicianship and compositional skill, there is very little to remind the listener of Univers Zéro or Henry Cow, while comparisons with the Canterbury scene will often crop up. Indeed, the album’s very title of “Floating World” neatly sums up the airy, effortlessly fluid nature of the music, reminiscent of the quirky elegance of Hatfield and the North or National Health. A rich instrumental texture unfolds a subtly shifting backdrop for Ontalva’s beautiful guitar excursions, suffused with the warmth of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tradition. In fact, the album’s roots lie in one of Ontalva’s many projects, called Transarabian Connection, whose sound blended classic jazz-rock and chamber music with the traditional music of Spain’s Sephardic Jews. The overall effect is of refined elegance and high listenability in spite of the obvious complexity of the pieces. The music possesses an upbeat, almost catchy feel – obviously not in a mainstream sense, but still making listening a pleasurable experience even for those who are used to more straightforward, melodic fare.

Five of the 12 tracks listed on Mundo Flotante are grouped in a suite titled “Sendas de Ofir”, the album’s centerpiece also on account of it strategic placement in the middle of things. Bookended by gentle, subtly melancholy melodies woven by electric and acoustic guitar, saxophone and keyboards, its central section alternates rarefied passages with an almost improvisational feel and more buoyant ones, led by energetic drums and sax and introducing a hint of dissonance. The elegant flow of the music, its many changes handled with a skilled touch, make for riveting listening, without none of the pretentiousness often associated with ambitious, multi-part compositions.

The remaining tracks are even more intriguing, some of their titles hinting at the presence of heady Middle Eastern suggestions. In particular“Leilya”, the only piece featuring Salib’s haunting wordless vocals well complemented by flute, sax, piano and guitar, conjures a North African market place, as well as the timeless magic of flamenco; opener “Sopla el viento del Este”, on the other hand, marries ethnic flavour and a jaunty, appealingly loose jazzy pace, which spotlights Ontalva’s guitar alongside organ and sax. The charming “Bounkam Reverie” evokes the Canterbury sound with its smooth yet intricate interplay between guitar, keyboards and drums (especially in evidence here), while in “Una para Lars” the cello adds its sober voice to the beautiful, romantic tapestry of acoustic guitar arpeggios embellished by tinkling percussion. The wistful “Aurelia quiere saber” pursues the almost autumnal mood of the last part of the suite, with melodica adding an appealing folksy touch. In contrast, the two final tracks on the album – “Sunda Stream” and “Aguas del Bagradas”-  reprise the brisk, jazzy tone of the opener, with some sharper, angular moments that hint at Ontalva’s work with October Equus.

Clocking in at a mere 43 minutes, Mundo Flotante is full of beautiful, laid-back music that is never in danger of overstaying its welcome, and where Ontalva’s remarkable compositional skill is not overshadowed by excessive ambition (as is often the case with solo albums). The strong ethnic component will especially appeal to those who love some exotic spice in their music of choice, but the album can be safely recommended to most lovers of progressive rock, especially those who lean towards the instrumental side of the genre.

Links:
http://www.octoberxart.com/

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